Mondoweiss / May 20, 2023
Over 75 years, the number of Palestinian refugees has surpassed 6 million worldwide and many still live in refugee camps. This is a look at the people who make up the camp, and the names and faces behind the term “refugee.”
At the entrance to the Aida refugee camp stands an enormous key, sat atop a structure built to resemble an old lock.
Known simply by residents as المفتاح, “the key”. It’s the defining feature of the camp, and a landmark known outside the camp’s borders, across the surrounding city of Bethlehem.
Need to give a taxi driver directions to the camp? “By the key of return.” Ordering takeout, or having a package delivered? The homes don’t have street addresses, so it sounds something like: “Take a left past the Key, past the Darwish family home and the souvenir shop, and I’ll meet you by Walid’s supermarket just down the road,” another classic landmark in Aida.
For seven years, this is how I have gotten around, in the community I have been blessed with calling home. It is where I first came as a reporter, to write a story about a joint memorial for Tamir Rice and a young 13-year-old boy from the camp, Abdelrahman Abdullah, who was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers on his way home from school. Eventually, it’s where I met my best friends, my life partner, and eventually where I settled down.
Every day, on my way to my car, to grab a coffee at our local cafe, or to step into the local community center to volunteer, I pass by this key. It was built by residents of the camp and volunteers at the Aida Youth Center several years ago, on one of the anniversaries commemorating the Nakba. It was built as a reminder to the world, but first and foremost, a reminder to the people of the camp, of what Aida’s residents, and Palestinian refugees everywhere, still hold on to: the right of return.
It’s been years since the key, an exact replica of the old iron keys that once opened the original homes of the refugees, was built. Today, it’s a little bit rusty, and is covered in graffiti, but is as omnipresent as ever; a reminder of the steadfastness of the refugee cause, and the undying hope to return.
It is also, first and foremost, a reminder of the people. The people who still live in this camp, after 75 years of exile, many of whom still hold their original keys to the homes they locked up and left behind. Beit Jibreen, Zakariyya, Al-Ramleh, Deir Aban, Al-Malha, Beit Nattif, Ras Abu Amar – these are some of the names that you’ll find plastered on the walls of the camp. They are the names of just some of the 23 villages that the people of Aida camp were expelled from.
If you make your way down any street in the camp, you will find several generations of refugees, each with their own story of displacement. In Aida, there are very few survivors of the “Nakba generation”, the generation was forced out in 1948 – you can count them on one hand. One of those survivors is an elderly woman, who was 12 years old when her family was expelled from their village of Beit Nattif. Now 87-years-old and bedridden, Habsa Abu Srour, still remembers Beit Nattif, and longs every day to return.”
“There was a war. It was night time, and our parents woke us up and started telling us to get up. The Jews had come into the village and were killing people, like how they did in Deir Yassin,” she said, referring to the now infamous massacre that took place in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin outside of Jerusalem. For many Palestinian refugees, including Habsa’s family, the story of the massacre in Deir Yassin was a catalyst that led to their families fleeing their homes, out of fear that they would suffer the same fate.
“I remember there was shooting all around us. They did just have bullets, they had bigger weapons too. We fled while they chased us with their guns. I remember my aunt was carrying a basket of things on her head, and they threw a grenade at her,” Habsa remembered.
“They [Israel] say they came peacefully, but this is a lie.”
Habsa still remembers being loaded onto one of her family’s donkeys, along with her siblings, while her parents and the older people in her family walked alongside them. They walked for days until they reached the outskirts of Bethlehem, where thousands of others of displaced Palestinians were seeking refuge from Zionist militias.
“We left everything behind. And they took it all. Our homes, our land, our livestock, our belongings. Everything,” she said. “One day my father returned back to the village to see if he could get back into our house, but they had destroyed everything. The whole village was gone.”
Like the other Palestinian refugees from Beit Nattif and the surrounding villages, Habsa and her family lived in caves on the outskirts of Bethlehem for a while. “Then one day, some of our old neighbors came and told my father that there was a place where foreigners were giving out wheat, flour, and other things.”
“And so we got on the donkeys, and came here [to Aida]. I remember seeing a sea of tents, and there were other people we knew from the village. For years we lived as four families in one tent,” Habsa remembers. “My father died while we were still living in the tents.”
And now Habsa, her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren still live in Aida. Though they no longer live in tents, and the camp has become their “home,” Habsa has not given up her dream to return. She says she waits for the day she can return to Beit Nattif, “to our sheep, our fig and olive trees, and our home.”
Today, the majority of Beit Nattif’s residents and their descendants reside in the three refugee camps in Bethlehem city: Aida camp, Al-Azza camp (Beit Jibreen camp), and Dheisheh camp.
Many of the families in the camp hail from the same villages in what is now Israel, and now share the same block in the crowded camp.
Everywhere you turn in the camp, there is a reminder of what was lost, what was stolen – not just the places, but the people too. Plastered along the walls and alleyways, next to the names of peoples’ original villages that were, are the names and faces of those who have been lost over the years to the brutal occupation. The faces of prisoners and martyrs, young and old, haunt the streets of the camp.
What I have come to know as fact in my years living in Aida, is that there is not a single house in the camp that has not been touched by the occupation. First and foremost, every home has their Nakba story, the tragedy that is unique to their family, but simultaneously shared by the whole community.
Every home also has stories of arrests, imprisonment, injuries, and killings. Some families have had their loved ones return home to them after years apart. Others have not been as fortunate. In Aida camp alone there are close to 10 political prisoners under life sentences. Many of them were arrested in the midst of the first and second intifadas for their political and armed activities resisting the occupation, and have been imprisoned ever since, leaving their families waiting for the day they return home.
One of those who have been left waiting, for more than 30 years, is Mazyouna Abu Srour. If the Key is a landmark of Aida camp, then Mazyouna is the pillar of the community. Tucked away on a quiet street in the middle of the camp, underneath a fig tree, you can find Mazyouna most days sitting outside on her porch, clad in an old hand-embroidered thobe, or traditional Palestinian dress. Now in her 80s, Mazyouna moves a little slower, and struggles to see. She greets everyone with a smile, and never turns anyone away from her door.
Most of the time, she is surrounded by people – daughters, neighbors, friends, young men from the community who come to check in on her. But none of these people are who she really wants to see.
Mazyouna’s son, Nasser, has been in Israeli prison for more than 30 years. Arrested when he was in his early 20s, Nasser just celebrated his 52nd birthday behind bars. Every day, Mazyouna waits for his return.
“What is the future? Do we have a future? Where is it?” Mazyouna asks indignantly, when asked what she hopes for the future.
“What do I think about, other than my son leaving prison, so I can finally be at peace. What happened to Nasser would destroy worlds, and I have carried it all on my shoulders. Has that been easy? No. It has not been easy on me.
Mazyouna’s home is a shrine to her son, with photos of her beloved Nasser plastered on every empty wall, every unoccupied surface. All she wants is to hold her son again, she says, so she can die in peace.
“32 years in prison. He is now 53 years old. All the boys that were Nasser’s age, his old school friends, are now becoming grandfathers, and Nasser is still in prison,” she says, her voice cracking. “How am I supposed to feel when I see that?
“Does anyone else care about the prisoners? Other than God, and their mothers? Has anyone held the burden like the mothers of the prisoners?”
While Mazyouna waits for her son to return home, other elderly members of the camp wait for the day they themselves, or their children, will return to their original villages and homes.
A few blocks away from Mazyouna’s home sits Mohammad ‘Abu Eyad’ al-Amir, 65, in his family’s small vegetable store. Mohammad wasn’t alive during the Nakba, but he was born shortly after, and remembers the story of his family’s displacement well.
“We all had the same story [of why we left]. We all heard the same stories of the Zionist forces. The stories of killing, violence, and oppression. So the people left,” he says. Every day, he says, is a reminder of what his family, and what the Palestinian refugees, have gone through,
“When I walk through the camp I think of all the old buildings. Before we had these current apartment buildings, we had these small cement rooms from the UN. Before that we had some tin shacks, and before that we had just the tents and the ground,” he recounts.
“There is nothing worse than a life in a refugee camp. But what can we do? We have no other option.”
Though Mohammad was born and raised in the camp, and never actually saw his family’s village, when you ask him where he is from, he does not say “Aida Camp”.
Just like in the dozens of other Palestinian refugee camps across occupied Palestine and neighboring countries like Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon – when you ask any Palestinian refugee where they are from, they will not tell you “Aida”, or the name of the camp where they were born and raised.
Eid Jawareesh, 72, has lived his whole life in the camp. But he proudly tells us that he is from the village of Al-Malha – a picturesque village in Jerusalem, where many of Aida camp’s residents came from. Today, Al-Malha is most known for its shopping mall and zoo, built by Israeli authorities on the lands of the village. Many of the original homes are still standing, now occupied by Jewish settlers, while the original landowners, like Eid, spend their life in the crowded refugee camp.
“My father and grandparents were farmers,” Eid tells us. “Maybe if I had been born in Al-Malha, I would have been a farmer too.”
Even the younger generation, kids as young as just eight years old will tell you the name of their original villages when you ask where they are from. And for those too young to understand, the kids older than them will make sure to teach them.
Ayham, 12, and Mahmoud, 6, stand in the street outside of a local shop that sells toys in their neighborhood in the camp. Mahmoud untangles the line to a kite the pair just bought. He wears a t-shirt from the local youth center, with a map of Palestine on the front, and the words “Return is our right and our will.”
When we ask the pair where they are from, Mahmoud timidly answers “Aida.” When asked where he is originally from, hesitantly, he answers, “Palestine?” Ayham lets out a giggle, and says “I am from Ras Abu Ammar,” a village on the outskirts of West Jerusalem that was de-populated by Zionist militias in 1948. Upon hearing this, Mahmoud chimes in excitedly, “Ras Abu Ammar! I am from there too.”
The two boys were born and raised in Aida, and have never known another home beyond the crowded, narrow alleyways of the camp, and the gargantuan Israeli apartheid wall that surrounds the camp. But they know Ras Abu Ammar, even just by name, and that it is their home.
As you make your way into the camp, you’ll find dozens – hundreds – of kids like Mahmoud and Ayham. Most of the time, the kids play in the streets – their only spaces outside of their homes to run around. But the streets are no place for children to play, especially these streets. Kids must dodge a number of obstacles – cars driving through tight alleyways, potholes and unpaved roads, active construction sites, and most dangerously, Israeli forces.
In 2017, Aida camp was designated as the most tear gassed place in the world in a joint study by the UN and UC Berkeley. Because of the camp’s close proximity to a permanent Israeli army base, the camp is subject to routine raids, during which Israeli forces shoot tear gas, rubber bullets, and even live ammunition at people – most commonly, young boys. Sometimes, those boys are killed, other times, they are arrested.
Over the years, the community in Aida has come together in an effort to reduce the amount of kids spending time in the streets. Aida is unique in that it has three local youth centers that offer the camp’s children and youth places to learn, express themselves, and socialize outside of their homes and schools.
But, at the end of the day, because of the lack of space in the camp, these centers offer almost exclusively indoor activities – save the occasional field trips and summer camps. Even the centers themselves are subject to raids. The one outdoor playground in the camp is located just meters away from the Israeli military base, and routinely gets tear gassed. There is a new football pitch that was built by the camp’s local council, but even that is marred by the view of the Wall.
And so, with limited spaces for children to play, many of the kids turn to video games. Because most families cannot afford to purchase expensive gaming consoles for their kids, one camp resident, known fondly as “Abu Jado”, converted his old garage in the heart of the camp into a makeshift arcade. For the very low price of 1 shekel (~27 cents), kids can play play-station and other computer games. Many of the young boys and teenagers come to pass their time here after school or on weekends.
On any given day, if they’re not hanging around the street, friends Eid, 13, and Saif, 11, can be found at Abu Jados playing play-station. “I like coming here to play and have fun. There’s nowhere else to go, where are we supposed to go in this camp?” Eid responds when we ask why he likes coming to Abu Jado’s.
Saif gives a similar response: “I come here to play PlayStation and computer, with my friends. There’s nowhere else to play in the camp. There’s nothing else to do here.”
When we ask the boys what they wished they could have in the camp, both respond: “A pool!” Saif adds that he also wouldn’t mind “a garden, and a big playground.”
Across the camp, which is home to more than 6,000 people, living in an area of less than 0.01 square kilometers, you’ll find many people like Abu Jado. People who have come up with creative ideas and solutions to the situation they have found themselves living in.
Down the road from Abu Jado’s arcade, 12-year-old Ameer and his older cousin run an electric scooter rental shop out of an old shipping container. Mostly, Ameer says he likes the scooters because he can ride around on them with his friends. When we asked why he and his cousin opened up the shop, he giggled shyly, “to make some extra cash, and so the kids can have fun, and pass the time.”
Just past the Key of Return, there is a souvenir shop that shares the same name, run by a local man and his sons, who have taken the weapons fired at them and turned them into art. Tear gas bombs, sound grenades, and rubber bullets have been converted into jewelry and home decor, and sold to tourists who come to the camp as part of a growing industry of alternative political tourism in Palestine.
Abdelrahman, or as he’s known by his nickname “Abood”, is 20 years old and runs the shop, while his dad works on the art in the family’s home workshop. Most days, you can find Abood sitting behind the desk of the old shop – the crowded walls and tables lined with different handicrafts and antiques. If he’s not in the shop making a sale, he’s hanging around outside chatting with his friends and neighbors as they pass by.
Sometimes, he thinks about what his life would look like if he wasn’t a refugee, and if his grandparents weren’t kicked out of their village, Deir Aban, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, just a few kilometers away from Aida. Much of Deir Aban was destroyed during the Nakba, though some structures remain. Four Israeli settlements now sit atop the land of Deir Aban.
“I think if I wasn’t a refugee, I would’ve liked to grow up where my grandparents did, and learn the things they used to do. I would’ve done something else with my life, to benefit my family, our land, our people,” Abood told us.
When asked what dreams he might have had, had his life turned out differently, he responded:
“It would have been a more simple dream, something that didn’t just have to do with freedom, just a dream of normal life.”
Just up the road from Abood’s family’s shop, is a black and orange truck, parked next to the Apartheid wall, and a now out-of-use Israeli military watchtower. Smoke rises from the truck, and the tantalizing smell of chicken and kebabs waft around the surrounding area. It’s the only food truck in Aida, and it doesn’t have a name. The camp’s residents have simply named it “Muntassir”, after the young man who opened up the food truck.
Muntassir, 31, started the food truck a couple years ago to supplement his income as a security guard, after he got married and started having kids. He quickly realized that his chicken and kebab sandwiches were in high demand, and eventually employed one of his cousins to work along with him.
“We don’t have the space or the money to open up big restaurants for example out of the camp, because it’s too expensive, so this is what we came up with,” he said. “The camp is different now than when I was growing up, it’s more crowded, but there’s less opportunities for jobs from UNRWA. So these days we have to do what we can for ourselves.”
“Palestinian companies and organizations don’t pay their workers proper wages, or even uphold the rights of workers. So the best you can do is open up something for yourself.”
Muntassir’s customers, like all the other food shops or supermarkets, serve almost exclusively residents of the camp, save a few tourists here and there. The camp rarely sees visitors from the surrounding city of Bethlehem, or other Palestinians that are not refugees.
In large part, it is due to preconceived notions, stereotypes, and misconceptions about refugees and the people of the camps. There is a commonly held belief amongst people from the cities and villages that the camps are places of squalor and violence, home to uneducated and uncultured people. There is a notion that the people of the camp, especially the young men and boys, are “thugs” and “troublemakers.”
It’s an issue my friends talk about all the time, and something I have personally witnessed myself. When you leave the camp, perhaps to go shopping in the city, or to sign your kid up for school, people will ask where you live. When you say that you live in the camp, it often elicits a range of emotions, from distaste, fear, discomfort, or outright discrimination.
It’s a long history that stems largely from the fact that the camps are places of abject poverty. People lost everything during the Nakba, so when the camps were established, its residents did not have land, livestock, or money to offer them social or economic mobility. In many camps, the overwhelming poverty led to lack of education, unemployment, confrontations with local authorities, and in some camps, the proliferation of drugs and weapons.
In Aida, the residents have worked hard over the years to alleviate these issues inside of their camp, promoting education, anti-drug initiative and work programs through the local community centers. Yet still, the stereotypes and preconceived notions are a sore spot for many of the camp’s residents, particularly the youth.
“I think there’s an opinion that people think we are uneducated, ignorant, just poor refugees. Like we shouldn’t have access to the same rights. This is usually what people think of us,” Abood lamented.
Muntassir expressed similar sentiments: “People outside the camp think we are living in shacks and in squalor, and that we are living in an uncultured society. But if you look around the camp you will find many educated people, doctors, graduates, etc.”
19-year-old Dima Jawareesh, a 4th generation refugee, is a college student at a local university in Bethlehem. She says that her and her other friends from the camp often get judged because of where they live.
“Sometimes people judge us, it depends how they’ve been raised, and what preconceived notions they have about the camps and the refugees. There is this stereotype about the girls from the camp, that we are a bit rough around the edges, not proper like the girls from the city,” she said.
“But the girls in the camp are stronger than any man outside the camp,” she went on confidently, to some chuckles from her father and mother, sitting in the living room across from her. “We have lived through more clashes than you can imagine. We are more than capable of ourselves, she went on, referring to the near daily Israeli raids on the camp.
“There aren’t any differences between the girls in the cities and in the camps. What’s the difference? Because we live in the camps? We are capable, we are respectable, and our family’s take care of each other, not how people think. Most of us are educated, we have degrees. We are just as cultured, just as educated, even though we are refugees.”
Driving by the local youth center, we stopped Mustafa al-Araj, a local resident and tour guide. Mustafa’s family is originally from the village Al-Walaja, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, just a few miles outside of Aida. For years Mustafa worked odd jobs, until he went back to school and got his tour guide license.
“There is a preconceived notion about the camp, that it is an uncivilized place, that people here aren’t learned. But today that is not the case,” Mustafa told us. “If someone comes to the camp they will find people more educated, even more cultured than those outside the camp.”
“Our generation has made sure to change this [reality].”
We ask Mustafa what some of the positive aspects are of living in the camp. He responds frankly: “If we want to talk about the positives of living in the camp, you can talk about the community and the people only.”
“But other than that, life in the camp is hard. Look around, there is a lack of services, infrastructure, proper education, etc.”
Simply put, the people have tried to make the best of the situation they are living in, but at the end of the day, camp life is not easy, and the effects of the Nakba – the loss of land, wealth, and inheritance – are still felt today. Those losses are compounded by the fact that the refugees in the camps rely largely on UNRWA for essential services like education, healthcare, sanitation, jobs, and humanitarian relief.
But over the past 10-15 years, residents have lamented a rapid decline in the quantity and quality of services by UNRWA. In recent years the agency has faced increased political pressure from Israel and the Trump administration, internal corruption scandals, and an overall decline in donor funding. These issues have, more than anything, impacted the lives of Palestinian refugees living in camps like Aida, who heavily depend on UNRWA and its services to survive. When UNRWA suffers, so do the refugees.
This has been no more evident than it has in recent months, as the camp’s sanitation workers employed by UNRWA have conducted on-again off-again strikes, over complaints of low wages amidst rising inflation and a lack of job security – most of the workers, even those who have been working with UNRWA for decades, are employed on temporary contracts.
Due to UNRWA’s refusal to meet the demands of the workers, the strike has continued. Because of this, and the fact that the city of Bethlehem provides no services to the camps, the streets of Aida right now are uncharacteristically dirty, as trash piles up in the streets and around the local dumpsters.
Mohammad Nimr, 49, is a local volunteer trying to keep the camp clean. He doesn’t work for UNRWA’s sanitation department, but most days you can find him with his broom, pale, and trash can, picking up trash from the street.
“When the workers go on strike, there’s no one else to do this job. So I try to help out where I can. I go every day from ‘Daar Khraiwesh’, all the way to ‘Daar Jado’,” Nimr says, using the names of families in the camp to indicate the different neighborhoods of the camp (in lieu of street names and numbers, this is how the camps residents get around and give directions).
“All hours of the night I pick up the trash, just as a volunteer. I do it to do something good for the camp and for my neighbors,” he said. As we spoke to Nimr, an elderly woman passed by, scolding him for not picking up the trash outside her door. The two get into a little spat, before she waves her hand in discontent and moves along. Nimr laughs, “she is my aunt.”
“In the camp we are all one people, we take care of each other. There isn’t a difference of people between us, not one from this village or one from the other. We are all together, as one. Even though my aunt just got mad at me, of course I will still be kind to her and pick up her trash,” he said smiling.
Our interaction with Nimr and his elderly aunt struck at the core of what life is like in the camp. In such an overcrowded and cramped space, you have people literally living on top of one another. Privacy is virtually nonexistent. Your comings and goings are under constant surveillance from neighbors and family. Some houses are so close together, you can hear neighbor’s conversations. There’s a joke in the camp that if a couple is fighting, don’t ask them, ask their neighbors.
And yet, despite the natural issues that arise when living in such close proximity to other people, and amidst such scarcity in resources, there is a tangible sense of togetherness. The reality is that no matter what neighborly spats, or communal issues may arise, the camp takes care of its own.
Through the good and the bad, family, friends and neighbors – neighbors that have remained unchanged for 75 years, and over more than four generations – all share the common experience of living in a place that feels like home in every sense of the word, but is not home. It is an inexplicable, and unbreakable bond, that is truly unique to the people of the camp.
If someone from the camp is ill, or has been in an accident, you’ll find half the camp up at the hospital, checking in to see if their community member is doing alright. The same goes for funerals, weddings, graduations, prisoner’s releases, and everything in between. The camp mourns together, and celebrates together.
This shared history and sense of common responsibility and struggle is evident in the annual Nakba commemorations that take place on May 15. This week marked 75 years since the Nakba. While the streets across the West Bank and the city of Bethlehem were relatively quiet compared to protests of previous years, the residents of Aida, young and old, marched hand in hand through the camp, past the Israeli wall and military base that strangles them every day, and up to the main Israeli military tower and base in northern Bethlehem to send the message that after 75 years, they had not forgotten the Nakba, nor their right to return.
Every year on Nakba day, the camp’s residents and activists partake in a popular action. One year they built the Key of Return that now stands at the camp’s entrance, another year they built a “train of return”, and attempted to ride it to the 300 checkpoint that blocks off Bethlehem from Jerusalem (naturally, they were shot at and tear gassed by Israeli soldiers.)
This year, the camp got together to place tombstones on the graves of deceased residents’ of Aida that read: “Even the dead will return”, inscribed with the names of the original villages that the deceased were from.
As the camp’s residents were placing the gravestones, Israeli soldiers from the military base fired tear gas towards the people, who included many children. It was a sobering reminder that in life, and in death, there is no peace under Israeli occupation and colonial rule.
It was another reminder that 75 years ago they were forced out of their homes, and today, even in this temporary home, they are being forced out once again.
For many of Aida camp’s residents, home is just a car or bus ride away. Yet most will never actually go there – to their real homes. How do you describe the pain of living in a refugee camp, robbed of the life that you should have inherited, when you know that your home – if it’s still standing – or your land, is just a stone’s throw away, being occupied by the descendants of the people who forced you out?
Perhaps that pain is best told by the reality of getting tear gassed while commemorating those who have passed – those who died waiting to return.
Yumna Patel is the Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss